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The “Trojan Horse” plot to install an Islamist ethos in schools took place in non-faith ones – primaries, academies and specialist colleges. But many of those who glanced briefly at news about it will never get this into their heads: they will persist in believing that the taxpayer is funding a legion of Muslim faith schools that are filling the heads of their pupils with ISIS propaganda.
This view is post-truth tosh. There is a tiny handful of state-funded Muslim schools – 18 or so – and there is no good reason why there should not be more. Islamism, the political ideology, is objectionable; Islam, the religious faith, is not. Even those who disagree with this view may take the view that it is better to have Muslim schools in the state sector, where they can be regulated and inspected, than in the private sector, in which government monitoring is more difficult to exercise. Much same argument raged about Maynooth College in Ireland, the best part of 150 years ago, and the funding of Catholic priests by the state.
Mention of which leads neatly to the present admissions rules governing faith schools. Ministers have been terrified of the electoral consequences of allowing more or larger Muslim schools. Voter blowback against Islam has also been felt, post 9/11, by other great monotheistic faiths, including Christianity. There is probably a sense among more people than previously that religion is a problem (which makes as much or as little sense as believing that politics is a problem). In any event, the human rights-based norms of our modern culture bar discrimination against any particular faith by law. The logical consequence of all this is that if the faith schools of one particular religion cannot be treated unfairly, then all must be treated unfairly.
The injustice comes in the form of the admissions rule which requires new faith schools, when over-subscribed, to limit the number of pupils they accept on the basis of faith to fifty per cent. As an author wrote on this site, the rule “fails according to its own objective: it does little to increase the diversity of Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools, because for now at least they are unlikely to appeal to parents of other faiths. But the rule is effectively discriminatory for Roman Catholics: it prevents them from opening new free schools because it is almost certainly against canon law for a Catholic Bishop to set up a school that turned away Catholic pupils on the basis of their Catholicism”.
“Given that there is growing demand for Roman Catholic schools,” he continued, “which are more likely to be ethnically diverse than other schools, more likely to be in poor areas, more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted, and more likely to provide what parents want, the rule should be replaced by a legal duty on faith schools to ensure that their pupils mix – perhaps through sport, performing arts, or school visits – with children of other backgrounds.” It is reported this morning that the Government is to follow this advice. The Cameron Government resisted removing the cap. But the new Prime Minister is to scrap it. She will announce the move this morning in a speech which will also propose the end of restrictions on grammar schools.
It may well be that May has been rushed into the announcement because of the photo-leak of her intentions on selection (though it’s worth noting that she promised early action on education in her leadership election membership stage launch speech). Some of those Conservative MPs who claim a monopoly on modernisation, and others from the traditional Tory Left, won’t care for the grammar schools announcement. Others who have a down on religion won’t like the faith schools one either, although it will probably gain less attention today. It will be hard to get changes through the Commons and even harder to do so in the Lords – at least in the case of selective schools.
The detail is to come. But the faith schools admissions decision is marvellously bold and right. It reflects great credit on the Prime Minister’s judgement: the cap is one of the “burning injustices” of which she has complained, and lifting it would be an act of social justice. However, it also demonstrates something else. It may be claimed that the most powerful element in her decision is her upbringing as a vicar’s daughter. This looks wide of the mark.
We quoted an author above as putting the argument against the cap. He is Nick Timothy, who wrote those words as a ConservativeHome columnist, and who is now the Prime Minister’s co-Chief of Staff. It is impossible not to see his hand in this decision – just as it is impossible not to see it in the Hinkley Point one, or in the review of big takeover bids on a case-by-case basis, or in the appointment of SpAds.
Mark Wallace reported yesterday on Elizabeth Truss’s apparent postponement of Michael Gove’s justice reforms. This cannot conceivably have happened without Timothy and other key Downing Street staff giving it the nod. We gather that some departments have been told to take a special interest in combatting modern slavery – another passion of the Prime Minister’s, and also of Fiona Hill’s, her other chief of staff.
This morning’s news shows the same pattern. That photo-leak showed that Justine Greening has concerns about the grammar schools policy at least. But like other Ministers she doesn’t hold full sway in her own department. Whether such tight control by a tiny number of people is sustainable or desirable – and indeed whether they desire it themselves, or whether it is a temporary expedient – is a matter for another day. For this one, praise will do.